The widest parts of the Potomac River are not quite “seaside” but they have that sort of feel, nonetheless. On a two-day tour through Maryland’s Western Shore (or, as some call it “Southern Maryland”), and the Northern Neck of Virginia, my friend Debi and I experienced a wide variety of sites, tastes, and even smells (fish guts on a public pier and fried food in a divey pub/Tiki Bar for instance).
For brevity purposes, I will concentrate on the Northern Neck portion of our journey. For those of you who are uninitiated, the NN is the portion of land between the mighty Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers. This area is billed as, among other things, The Birthplace of the Nation since several founding fathers and other historic personages were born and/or grew up there.
We started our adventures in Colonial Beach. The first thing we noticed was the mural that we parked near, depicted in the large photo at the top of this blog, which might tip one off to the fact that the town, while still charming in its own way, may have had its heyday at an earlier time period. Other murals we encountered around town had a vintage feel as well (you can view a slide show of more of them here).
What does one do in Colonial Beach? We started out by indulging in some retail therapy at a very nice second hand store. Then, we walked down and out onto to the town pier, where locals were catching some impressive catfish. Next, walked along the beach on a pathway that leads to, among other things, the humongous Riverboat on the Potomac, a casino and restaurant which apparently gets around strict Virginia laws against such gambling establishments by being located on the river, which is technically part of Maryland.
When asked about the best crab cakes served in a beachside atmosphere, the proprietor of the second hand store recommended The Dockside, a couple miles out of town. Basically, you just follow the road that parallels the water until it ends in a marina and the sprawling restaurant, offering a slightly seedy but cool interior as well as two levels of “outside dining” – steamier but with water views. There is a little beach and a small performance venue on the grounds, no doubt very popular on weekend evenings, and the de rigueur “tiki” furnishings – thatched huts and Hawaiian style decor. The crab cakes and hushpuppies were very satisfying (I gave it a good rating on Tripadvisor.).
Our appetites being satiated, we next turned our attention to history. Which eminent figure’s birthplace to visit? George Washington seemed too obvious. James Monroe was also vetoed. Robert E. Lee…well, who could resist such a controversial and complex personage? We headed for Stratford Hall, birthplace and boyhood home (till he was little more than a toddler) of REL. This site did not disappoint.
In addition to the Great House, which has an oddly truncated appearance and layout despite its impressive cadre of brick chimneys, the museum at the visitor’s center and the grounds are worth lingering in. Unfortunately, we caught the last tour of the day and didn’t have enough time to do the site justice. But we caught the gist.
I came away feeling sad for Robert E. Lee, a brilliant and conflicted figure. His father was a poor money manager and they had to leave this idyllic home on the Potomac for less impressive digs when the lad was four years old. Our tour guide indicated that he seemed to yearn for this home for the rest of his life. (The stately Lee Custis House now located in Arlington Cemetery was his wife’s family home.) No denying, he was one of the most prominent Confederates and, of course, one of the statues in his honor was a major catalyst of the recent tragedies in Charlottesville. But visiting his boyhood home also reminded us that he was a human being with an extremely complex history.
The Northern Neck is worth visiting for all of the above reasons: crab cakes, scenic views, and historic circumstances that continue to haunt us all.